Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Does anyone know of an overtaking crash on NM-4 climbing into the Jemez?

I'm curious, after penning the following letter. Does anyone know of any bike-car crashes resulting from motorists overtaking bicyclists who are climbing into the Jemez? I've never seen or heard of one, and have had, in 11 years, only one instance of grumpiness on the part of an overtaking motorist. If you know of any crashes, send a comment.

Dear Transportation Board

Yesterday I received a phone call from a Los Alamos resident who was referred to me by one of the Chandlers (I forget which one, and did not write it down). The caller thought I was on the bicycling subcommittee of the Transportation board.

I told him that to my knowledge, the Transportation Board has not re-created a bicycling subcommittee and I'm certainly not on one, so anything I say would be offered as the $0.02 of a private citizen. 

The person went on to suggest that bicyclists riding uphill on NM-4 (into the Jemez) create a dangerous situation since there are a lot of tight curves and no shoulders, and that something should be done to make the road more hospitable (such as adding pullouts for slow vehicles).

I told him that to my knowledge based on living here since 2001, there has not been a crash resulting from a motorist overtaking a cyclist climbing into the mountains on SR4 and that while overtaking on a mountain road (or any road) often requires patience and attention to detail, that does not translate into danger--it is the expectation in the West that we need to plan on  such situations, whether the slower vehicle is a bicycle, large R/V, or a truck hauling horses.  Back East where I am from, it is often Amish buggies.

The two crashes on NM4 involving bicyclists and motor vehicles that I am aware of were both caused by conflicts between oncoming vehicle operators, in one case a cyclist and an oncoming motorcyclist, and a recent crash between a cyclist and an oncoming car on the last hairpin. I'm not privy to the finer details.

Generally, we who live in the mountains drive and ride that road with due diligence, as explicitly required by our traffic law. The speed limit on NM-4 West of Back Gate to the top of the climb is posted at 30 mph and sharp curves are posted with lower advisory speeds. I am a regular cyclist on that road and assert it is quite safe if overtaking motorists use prudence; cyclists can help motorists overtake, such as by shading right when it is safe to do so. Since the road is narrow, the position of a cyclist is moot on overtaking since a proper overtaking distance (5' by county law, reasonable and prudent by state law) requires motorists to encroach into the oncoming lane regardless as to how far out a cyclist is riding from the edge. For the record, I generally ride about 18 inches from the edge of the pavement. It is in fact in a motorists own interests to use care--no one knows when a deer or rockfall will lurk around a blind curve.

While improvements to NM-4 would be welcome, especially given the damage to the road from heavy vehicle use during the Las Conchas fire, asserting danger on the basis of one's personal comfort level reduces the concept of danger to a subjective reaction rather than one of science or engineering and that doesn't usually translate into good public policy, whether it be mountain roads or roundabouts. 

While I would cheer on the County if we were to contact NMDOT on their future plans to improve NM-4, I say that with some trepidation since the Law of Unintended Consequences will undoubtedly kick into high gear--an improved road will probably encourage faster speeds and more complacency. Right now, I think people hang up and pay attention, given the nature of NM-4.

I'm writing the T board and Chief Torpy since I was contacted assuming I was a board member, so this is simply an FYI, in case it comes up.

1 comment:

Steve A said...

Excellent response. Well, IMO.